Robin Mills went to Lyme Regis to meet writer Miranda Vickers. This is her story.
“I’m a West Londoner through and through. I was brought up there, although nowadays I spend much of my time, especially during the summer, in Lyme. I was an only-child and my parents split up when I was 18 months old, so I didn’t really know my father. My mother was from a staunch London/Irish background, and it was very difficult for her as a single working parent, so she sent me to live with my Irish grandparents in Acton, West London. I went to a strict Catholic girls’ convent school which I absolutely hated. We were hit repeatedly by the nuns using the sharp edge of a ruler on our hands and legs. I got expelled at the age of 13. This was easy to do because something as trivial as smoking, or carrying the Thoughts of Chairman Mao instead of a prayer book, was an expelling offence. I was then sent to another even stricter convent, from which I also got expelled for trying to run away.
In those days you could leave school at 15, so along with my cousin who was 16, I took the Magic Bus from Victoria Station on the four-day journey to Athens where we got jobs as chambermaids in the Monastiraki district. I learned to speak Greek, and after the chambermaid job I bought a forged English degree from a dealer in Piraeus and we took the boat to Crete where we settled in a small fishing village and I taught English at a language institute in Iraklion. I also taught Greek to American personnel at the nearby U.S. airbase. In the end, I stayed in Greece for nearly 5 years.
However, the situation in Greece at that time, the mid-1970s, was very unstable. Following the coup by the colonels, there was an extreme right-wing government, and I was involved with left wing politics so it wasn’t a good place to be. My Greek boyfriend had been arrested and tortured and I was asked to leave the country. Simultaneously, my mother became seriously ill with cancer. So I returned to London and my mother died, leaving me with next to no family. I tried to settle back in London, but having only a forged degree and no formal qualifications, I found it difficult to get work.
I met a boy from Belfast, and packed him and our friends into my mother’s flat in Ealing where we lived as a little commune. I became vegetarian and eventually we decided to try and embark on the good life wholeheartedly. I sold my mother’s flat and bought a cottage near Arundel in West Sussex with an enormous garden, and tried to become self-sufficient. We acquired quite a menagerie of cats, chickens, ducks, a rabbit and a guinea pig but we had absolutely no experience, and of course we couldn’t kill anything. That first winter we collected wood from the forest for our fire but it was damp and wouldn’t light so we froze, and in the spring we planted vegetables but got very thin and hungry waiting for them to grow. We got thinner and thinner, and friends from London would visit with hampers of food and implore us to return to civilisation. Eventually my boyfriend got a job as a tomato pollinator, and with my vast experience I got a job as a chambermaid.
It became obvious, however, that we were never going to be able to live as we’d intended, so we returned to London bringing back most of the menagerie, including Gertrude the bantam hen that we’d rescued from a gang of boys with catapults, who lived to the great age of 14. I bought a derelict cottage back in Ealing, made it habitable, and decided to get myself properly educated. So I did a foundation course then a Degree in modern history followed by a Masters Degree in Balkan history at London University, at the end of which I wrote my first book, The Albanians – a Modern History. I studied Balkan history because of the affinity I’d had for the Balkans ever since living in Greece. Before Greece joined the European Union, non-Greeks had to leave Greece every 3 months in order to get a new passport visa. So my cousin and I would leave Crete, and travel right up to a village just over the Yugoslav border where we’d stay a couple of nights. That was where I met my first Albanians, who described their mysterious, inaccessible, mother country, and that was how I got interested in Albania and the Albanians living in Yugoslavia.
As soon as I’d finished my MA a journalist from the Independent, James Pettifer, contacted me via the University because he’d been commissioned to write the first Blue Guide to Albania, and he needed a researcher to go there with him; so we met in a pub in Aldwych, got on like a house on fire, and he offered me the job. That was 1991 and we have been working together ever since. Albania then was almost a pre-industrial world, akin I imagine to how England was in the 1840s. The Communist regime was crumbling and the people were desperately poor, having been locked into an isolationist time warp for nearly 50 years.
The country was at that time completely anarchic, with people looting whatever they could and trying to flee the country. Food was scarce and the political situation was incredibly volatile. Everyone was armed including our driver, who taught us how to shoot and we kept a pistol in the front of the car. The following year the Yugoslav wars began, eventually spreading south to the Albania-inhabited region of Kosovo.
From then on, throughout the 1990s I worked in Albania and Kosovo as a journalist and, until 2006, as a political analyst for the International Crisis Group. James and I wrote a book chronicling what we had witnessed in Albania called Albania – from Anarchy to a Balkan Identity, which was published in 1997. The following year my book on the history of Kosovo was published. During this whole process, I became an acknowledged specialist on Albania and the southern Balkans and was visiting the region five or six times a year. It was a very busy and stressful time and I started coming to Dorset for short breaks in order to relax, often staying in B&B’s around Lyme. I found that West Dorset was far enough away from London to provided real escapism. My boyfriend and I decided that if anything cheap in Lyme came up we’d try to buy it. So in 1995 we bought Wren Cottage near the Mill. In 1997 I split up with my boyfriend and began a relationship with another Belfast man whom I eventually married in 2009. He has a fishing boat in Lyme harbour and we share a little cottage in Church Street.
Over the past few years, Albania has settled down to relative tranquillity along with the Balkan region as a whole. Although I still work on Albania-related issues, going to conferences, writing articles for newspapers and journals and have published two more books on Albania, I travel there far less frequently. Despite my deep affection for Lyme, I love London with a passion, especially my home ‘manor’ of Ealing. When I’m not in Lyme, I spend much of my time on my allotment in Ealing and boating on the Thames. As a child I would play beside the River Thames at Chiswick, with my cousin, and we would walk across to a little island at low tide. There we would build our secret camp and swim on warm summer days. That childhood smell of Thames mud never really left me, even in the Balkans. Despite the Thames playing such an incredibly important role in English history, I was amazed to find that nothing had been written about the 190 or so islands in the Thames, so in 2007 I decided to write a book about the islands called Eyots and Aits – Islands in the River Thames, which will be published in May 2012. I have a small boat in which my husband and I have greatly enjoyed the last few summers going up and down the Thames searching out all the islands. Much of the book has been written in our peaceful garden in Lyme. The thing about writing a book is that when you’ve got this thing in you, you’ve just got to get it out, to express it, and that’s what I’m doing.”